Devolution: The future of the UK is under the microscope

After an eventful few weeks for devolution, Ed Jacobs looks at what the future of the UK may well be.


With Scotland due to go to the polls in a little under two years, the cacophony of noise that has been the debate over possible independence has undoubtedly had ramifications for the rest of the UK, ramifications that were clear to see over the weekend.

First, in Northern Ireland, the debate over its constitutional status was once again brought to the forefront of people’s minds as Sinn Fein, earlier this year, called for a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should unite with the south.

This weekend they found a riposte in the form of DUP leader and first minister, Peter Robinson.

Addressing the DUP annual conference on Saturday he said “Republicans asking for a border poll makes turkeys voting for Christmas” and “Protestants and Catholics alike support our constitutional position within the United Kingdom”.

Robinson concluded:

“What Sinn Fein is doing only drags us back into that sterile and divisive debate.

“Republicans need to accept Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom and leave the play-acting aside, just as Unionists have had to accept the present arrangements at Stormont.

“Power sharing is not something that many unionists would place as their first preference, but the reality is that cross community government has increased support for the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland.”

Whilst Sinn Fein have argued the best way to test the DUP’s assertions is through a vote, the reality is that polling, however sparse it might be in Northern Ireland, gives a clear sign of support for Robinson’s comments.

In June, polling by LucidTalk for the Belfast Telegraph found the proportion of the Catholic population who favour Irish unity now or in 20 years is finely balanced, with 48% against it completely. This compared with 7% who said they would vote for it now and a further 41% who would support such a proposition in the future.

Game, set and match to the DUP then? Perhaps not.

Reviewing the Robinson speech, the BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent, Mark Simpson, wrote:

A referendum on Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is not on the political horizon. Unionists will be watching carefully what happens when Scotland votes on independence in 2014, but are in no rush to go to the polls themselves.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson says it would be a waste of time and money as most Protestants – and Catholics – now support the union. So that’s it then? The constitutional issue is now settled? Don’t bet on it. Sinn Fein say they are stepping up their campaign for a border poll.

One day, we may see exactly how many people want a united Ireland. But it is unlikely to be soon.

Meanwhile, just days after the Silk Commission called for the Welsh Assembly and government to gain significant new tax varying powers, the political classes in Cardiff Bay – having been in near consensus over the need for such powers – have sought to take the debate even further and establish how such a change could practically happen.

Speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Politics Show for Wales, one senior Conservative AM, David Melding (currently deputy presiding officer of the Welsh Assembly), has called for the Assembly itself to increase in size from its current 60 to 80 members to be able to cope with increased powers over taxation.

Supporting proposals from the Electoral Reform Society he explained:

“We’ve had no tax powers so far and if we want to do that sort of work then I think we probably would need new members.

“My own view is that we should have 80 members and we should have tax raising responsibilities because I really think that could bring great benefits to the Welsh economy if we use those powers intelligently.”

Assessing the proposals from the Silk Commission, this week’s edition of The Economist, meanwhile has argued that if Westminster adopted the proposals it would be “remarkable”.

It explained:

Wales has little history as an independent state. It shares England’s legal system. Only around 10% of its 3m population consistently backs independence, far less than in Scotland. Welshness is more cultural than political: rugby and the Welsh language define it more than any institution.

Yet Wales is steadily diverging from England, albeit much less raucously than Scotland. In 1997 the Welsh narrowly voted to create an elected National Assembly. Since then the country has quietly pursued distinct policies. Tuition fees are heavily subsidised and doctors’ prescriptions are free. Wales has no academies or free schools – centrepieces of an educational revolution in England – nor even official school league tables.

Most controversially, the Welsh have opted to cut the budget of the National Health Service instead of imposing deeper cuts on other bits of the state – something viewed as politically toxic in Westminster.

Last year, following another referendum, the Welsh Assembly gained the power to write its own laws in 20 devolved areas, previously some Welsh decisions needed Westminster’s agreement. Control over taxation would make the Welsh government more accountable to its electorate and give its politicians a stake in improving the country’s economic fortunes.

Added to the eventual outcome in Scotland – whether it is independence, as nationalists want, or more devolution, as unionists offer – it would be a big step towards a more federal United Kingdom.

North of the border, meanwhile, publishing its interim report (pdf) on Scotland’s Constitutional Future, the Scottish TUC has called for an improved level of debate over independence.

The paper, which does not come down on one side of the debate or the other, lays out a series of challenges for those involved, including:

• To ensure an open, honest, full and frank debate, Scotland needs “more information and less sloganeering”;

• All sides in the debate need to persuade Scotland “social justice is more achievable as a consequence of their chosen constitutional option”;

• For the Yes to independence campaign to succeed, the report argued a “more detailed vision for fairness” will be needed; and

• For the Better Together campaign, and Scottish Labour in particular:

Not being the Tories and negative messages about the SNP will not suffice and members will require a clear steer on how economic and social justice will be achieved at all levels of government and to be convinced that the Scottish Labour party intends to play an active and radical role in achieving this.

“Equally, whilst not necessarily convinced of the ‘Devo Max’ model as broadly outlined by the Scottish government, there is clear support amongst those who are opposed to independence (or undecided) for significant additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. Detailed attention to this must be given by the ‘Better Together’ parties in the next period and meaningful proposals brought forward.”

Publishing the report on Sunday, STUC general secretary Grahame Smith observed:

“Over the past few months we have invited members as well as those from wider communities to join the discussion on social justice and Scotland’s future. This interim report poses many questions, reflecting a general view that the quality of the debate must improve dramatically and it must take place in a far less febrile atmosphere. This is not helped by sensationalist reporting.

“The early reporting of our draft findings is an illustration of the reason that so many organisations are reluctant to engage in open and inclusive discussion and debate.”

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